Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Get Political (part one)

Contemporary theatre would like to be political: ever since Brecht placed his talents at the service of Marxism – becoming the pride of the post-war East German communist state – and Boal claimed that ‘all theatre is political’, playwrights and directors have grappled with the potential of performance to provide political positions.

Given the intensity of current parliamentary shenanigans, from David Cameron’s destabilising government through a series of referenda, the bold attacks on the welfare state by a Conservative cabinet that barely has public support through a Labour party riven by internal anxiety, despite the popularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn (who has his own Blue Peter style annual, now available at half-price in Waterstones), through to a press determined to push an agenda that plays to the interests of its millionaire owners, politics is a fertile ground for satire and artistic commentary.

The results, however, have been limited. The Traverse production of How to Disappear aimed at the savagery of the benefits system, only to resolve it through a science-fiction fantasy; Buzzcut’s Double Thrills programme has included performance that deconstructs oppression and celebrates counter-cultural identity; Arika invites artists working from queer and marginalised communities to question the relationship between creativity and activism. 

Script-based theatre, on the other hand, tinkers with political intention without much effect. How to Disappear is a fine example of the lack of meaningful engagement: having set up a scenario that exposes the cruelty of the benefit system, it simply wishes away the evil, content to claim that a personal transformation is enough to rescue both ‘clients’ and officials from the tyranny of a system that cares more for business than the individual. 

Trumpageddon went for it

While these have all articulated protest, and have entertained and educated, they are outposts of rebellion, either reaching limited audiences or addressing general concerns. There is no obligation to these organisations to take on more specific issues – or to change, as it would be a great loss for either Buzzcut or Arika suddenly to subsume their visionary curation of events beneath a dogmatic call to political action.

Other new work has been more explicit and focussed – Julia Taudevin’s Blow Off may have drawn a nihilistic conclusion, but it captures a broad sense of how patriarchal oppression impacts on the individual and expresses punk frustration – but the programme of The Lyceum, which artistic director David Greig regards as an engagement with contemporary society, seems reluctant, at times, to follow through its ambitions with immediate relevance, deferring direct assaults on Brexit to meditations on the past (Cockpit’s sumptuous staging by Wils Wilson rescued a strangely xenophobic script that examined displaced persons in the aftermath of World War II)or manipulating classical texts for contemporary allusions (The Suppliant Women of Aeschylus becoming a metaphor for the treatment of migrants).

Even more disappointingly, the recent Tron presentation of The Brothers Karamazov majored in a discussion about the relationship between church and state in Czarist Russia, concentrating on a largely irrelevant historical idiosyncrasy of the source novel and ignoring the qualities of the novel that have allowed it to maintain relevance into the twenty-first century. Scripted theatre – although it has champions for new work in the Traverse and at Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and A Pint – is often undermined by its desires to revive plays from the past, plays that have often disappeared from the repertoire because of their historical contingency and present cultures and politics that resonate distantly to contemporary concerns.

Placing political discussions in the past can allow the audience to displace responsibility: Restoration comedy, for example, frequently mocks the sexual morality of the fashionable set but, given its obnoxiously hypocritical double-standards, this satire doesn’t hit home in a society that is beginning to recognise the corruption of Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and the internet. If anything, it gets audiences off the hook of responsibility, providing evidence of progress.

Future generations of scholars, no doubt, will be able to comment on how the various revivals of The Oresteia or Jumpy reveals the anxiety of the twenty-first century, and that the omnipresence of consumerism caused a tension between notions of theatre as art and entertainment. The role of the audience – largely middle-class – and the desire to pander to their broad beliefs – will be analysed, and the confluence of capitalist individualism and left-wing beliefs identified to explain why activist content was so frequently presented in a traditional, conservative format. 

as seen as the Lyceum

Economics, especially the influence of the funding bodies, will be laid out and the movement towards another mode of performance explained, much as the neo-classical tragedy of seventeenth century France becomes a prelude to the bourgeois sentimental drama of the eighteenth century. 

In the meantime, theatre is failing in its political ambitions. 

While I don’t have any great enthusiasm to see a selection of plays revelling in a right-wing bias, the lack of diversity in the political perspective presented on stage suggests either a lack of imagination or a deliberate pandering to the audience’s exiting beliefs. Iphigenia in Splott, a success at the 2016 Fringe, is a case in point. Rightly lauded for a power solo performance and sharp writing that captures both regional detail and the wider impact of government policy on the poor, it was wrongly praised as ‘revolutionary’ when its only conclusions were a celebration of working-class resilience: far from pointing to solutions, or even attacking the causes of oppression, it is a powerful steam-valve for the audience’s anger, providing the illusion of political engagement. Against this, companies like Cardboard Citizens tour into venues, like shelters, to engage homeless people, aligning their means of presentation with their subject matter. Me and Robin Hood concludes with a collection for charity, asking the audience to go beyond simple assent to the politics expressed. 

Attendance at a political performance, like the Lyceum’s programme, rather, becomes a form of virtue-signalling that demands no action: an end in itself, the public sphere of theatre becomes a mimesis of activism, in the worst sense. It effects no change, even encourages a sense of hopelessness, a point made in Ontroerend Goed’s Audience. The spirit of the agit-prop performance has been replaced by empty gestures.

That isn’t to conclude that all of these works are irrelevant or unnecessary, or even beyond redemption. How to Disappear had some strong performances – Sally Reid, unsurprisingly, lent sympathy to a simplistic character, Cockpit imagined a way of using the auditorium to immerse the audience within the action. But without more explicitly political theatre, without the extremes of content and form, it never moves beyond a vague assent that things aren’t that great, are they?

It has a go at politics 

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